After Wuhan, will the Dragon and the Elephant tango?

India cannot be complacent about China's intent and machinations to see it as a subordinate power in Asia.

Written by Major General BK Sharma | Updated: May 7, 2018 4:32:21 pm
After Wuhan, will the Dragon and the Elephant tango? Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping as they visit an exhibition of cultural relics at the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province on April 27, 2018. (Pang Xinlei/Xinhua via AP/File)

The hype over the informal summit between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping at Wuhan is receding. However, prudence demands that going beyond the hyperbole, we investigate the dynamics of the India-China entente in a dispassionate manner.

There are differing viewpoints articulated by analysts on the motives behind the summit. Some say India succumbed to China, others believe China blinked and a third group holds the view that it suited both sides to seek rapprochement in the light of Trump’s ‘America First Policy’, growing US protectionism and the larger geopolitical milieu.

There is a school of thought that Chinese president Xi Jinping has applied Mao’s “Theory of Contradictions” to recalibrate relations with India. Chairman Mao had theorised that secondary contradictions be temporarily set aside till the primary contradiction is resolved. Meaning, at this juncture, China is entering a vicious trade war with the Trump Administration which has designated China as a hegemonic and revisionist rival; it has imposed trade barriers on major Chinese companies that are potentially damaging for China’s economy and technological advancement.

So the primary contradiction for China, for the moment, is how to deal with an intransigent Trump administration on priority. An upstart India, a perceived secondary contradiction, can be handled later. Beijing can ill-afford two major Asian powers viz, Japan and India to ally with Washington. A strategic alliance like the Quad (with Australia, Japan and the US), if successful, could impede China becoming a developed country by 2035 and a superpower by 2049, as envisaged in ‘China Dream’.

China is cognisant of India’s growing economic heft and resolve to protect its core interests. India’s stand during the military face-offs at Doklam, Chumar and Depsang over the last few years, and continued reservations about the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), particularly its flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor *CPEC), has made China realise that it is premature to coerce India. Realpolitik on the part of China demands a tactical adjustment to steer relations with India to a manageable level till the American challenge is mitigated.

India’s incentive to cosy up to China stems from the unpredictability of the Trump administration and uncertainty about US reliability in a strategic calculus vis a vis China. The exclusion of Australia from the multilateral naval exercise Malabar-2018 is a harbinger of diminishing traction to the Quad, in deference to Chinese sensitivities.

With several state elections this year culminating in the general elections in May 2019, it is important that the Modi government not have any serious contestations with China in this period, which would otherwise have a serious political fallout. Therefore, a truce at this juncture favours both sides.

But the moot point is, will the Chinese dragon and the Indian elephant dance with each other, as fancied by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi? From a broader perspective, the irreconcilable differences in the strategic objectives of the two powers suggest that their emerging bonhomie won’t mask their deeper differences for long.

At the 13th National People’s Conference, President Xi exhorted the People’s Liberation Army not to lose even an inch of China’s territory. China’s strident position on the disputed border with India, with the Tibet issue as well as the fact that it has become a de facto third party in the Kashmir imbroglio, means that any breakthrough in the boundary dispute is near impossible. China continues to scuttle UN Resolution 1267 on declaring Masood Azhar as a terrorist, has opened conversations with the Taliban and enthusiastically defends Pakistan.

Efforts to obtain tangible assurances on not diverting the waters of the Brahmaputra river, righting the enormous trade imbalance or India’s membership of Nuclear Supplier Group have so far yielded little. China’s outreach into South Asia and the Indian Ocean region is inducing a gravitational pull on India’s neighbouring states.

India will soon encounter another challenge at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Amongst all the member states, India is the lone dissenter on BRI. The SCO member states are promoting the linking of BRI with the Eurasian Economic Union, setting up a Eurasian Fund and starting business transactions in regional currencies. China is wooing Afghanistan by extending CPEC into that country, helping set up a military base and facilitating dialogue with Pakistan. An ostrich-like approach cannot wish away the hard challenges in the evolving balance of power staring India in the face.

India and China will compete for domination of resources, location and influence. Structural factors in the relationship suggest that Sino-Indian rivalry will intensify in the long run. There is a widening gap in the comprehensive national power of India and China. Beijing is constantly gaining a competitive advantage in the strategic balance vis-a-vis New Delhi. We need to have a coherent understanding of this “new modus vivendi” with China, albeit, without compromising our core interests.

India cannot be complacent about China’s intent and machinations to see it as a subordinate power in Asia. We should be deft in our assertions to make China understand and heed India’s sensitivities.

In the meanwhile, the window of heightened strategic brinkmanship between China and the US should be utilized to build capacities to reclaim strategic influence in the periphery and place India in a favourable position for long-term competition with China. Concurrently, measures to build strategic trust, complementarities and interdependence with China must continue with dignity and sincerity.

Finally, India must heed the Theodore Roosevelt maxim, “to speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far”. For India, it implies achieving credible deterrence against external threats.

Gen B K Sharma (Retd) is Head of Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation at the United Service Institution of India, based in New Delhi.

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